A collective sigh of relief was almost palpable following a recent media briefing by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It was not because its director general brought good news from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on the frontline of the Russia-Ukraine war, but because trusted experts from the UN watchdog had verified what was going on and had given advice on how to avoid catastrophe.
Of course, that does not necessarily mean that the protagonists will listen. That is the UN’s central paradox and problem. In an interconnected world where our biggest challenges know no borders, the UN is our agreed forum to settle differences and enhance the collective good. But this depends on co-operation among sovereign states that are driven, above all, by national self-interests.
A few days earlier, a ship carrying 23,000 tonnes of wheat for the World Food Programme (WFP) docked in Djibouti. Although a drop in an ocean of what is needed, it is an important moment for 22 million food-stressed people in the Horn of Africa, not least because it raised hope of more shipments, thanks to a UN-brokered agreement that unblocked grain exports from Ukraine.
These examples illustrate the utility of the UN system. But the IAEA mission was only possible because two member states – Russia and Ukraine – agreed after other members pressured them. The resumption of grain exports happened only when African countries lobbied Moscow and Turkey took the lead in negotiations.
The UN facilitated these achievements, rather like a priest blessing a marriage that requires the consent of two people. It shows that the UN is only as effective as the sum of its parts.
When they pull together, the UN impacts our daily lives in myriad ways. We fly safely across national air spaces because of its International Civil Aviation Organisation. When our letters or money orders arrive in some distant part of the globe, thank the UN’s Universal Postal Union. When we use the phone or internet to connect anywhere, acknowledge the UN’s International Telecommunication Union.
Invented a new gadget that needs protection in multiple countries? Register with the World Intellectual Property Organisation. Seeking dignified livelihoods through decent work? Engage with the International Labour Organisation, the only global body that gives equal voice to governments, employers and workers. Concerned with restoring stressed ecosystems? Get inspired by the UN Environment Programme.
Setting norms and standards and establishing best practices is the UN’s most vital global service as it would be tedious and costly for every nation – especially the smaller and poorer ones – to do this.
The UN is also at the forefront of raising humanity’s aspirations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, is available now in 360 languages. It is the world’s most translated document. It is a yardstick to assess right and wrong and provides enduring hope and inspiration, even if we don’t live up to its powerful exhortations.
More recently, the Sustainable Development Goals, unanimously adopted by the UN in 2015, is a stirring call to eliminate poverty and protect the planet that needs the orchestration of massive resources; fortunately, we have the World Bank to do that. This is self-evidently good, even if the world is hopelessly lagging in delivering on the 2030 targets.
It is easy to scoff at the UN’s idealism, but it provides the framework for national development strategies. These efforts are trusted and respected because they are inclusive. They draw on worldwide knowledge and expertise to help all countries without threatening any of them. A good illustration is the success against the once-lethal HI, thanks to UNAIDS and the Global Fund to Fight Aids.
However, when the common good collides with national self-interest, the UN finds itself in the hot seat attempting to facilitate agreement while ensuring that compromises do not stray too far from the norms that it must uphold.
Inevitably, no one emerges unbruised from trying to square such contradictions. The efficacy of Cop26, for example, is being questioned by recent disaster victims in Pakistan, who are awaiting long-promised climate mitigation funds. The UN is blamed for non-delivery although it can’t create money and still relies on wealthier countries to provide it.
The Covid-19 response provides further illustration. Some blame the World Health Organisation for the huge social and economic costs of lockdowns, although its advice was much more nuanced than what some nations practised. The UN’s Global Vaccine Alliance also gets the blame for gross inequities in the sharing of life-saving vaccines, although it is producer nations that hoarded supplies. Meanwhile, arguments over intellectual property rage at the World Trade Organisation to allow patent waivers and expand manufacturing of life saving therapeutics, thereby saving more lives.
That the UN is destined to dwell permanently between a rock and a hard place is exemplified by its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Did the previous high commissioner refuse to extend her tenure because she was worn down by abuse and blame as human rights declined and human wrongs multiplied? She can hardly be blamed that her time in office coincided with an increase in authoritarianism around the world.
The UN attracts even greater criticism for not realising its core mission on peace and security, the raison d’etre for its foundation in 1945 after the Second World War. Nearly eight decades later, the world is deadlier than it has ever been since, with two billion – a quarter of humanity – living alongside conflict. And yet, it has nearly 100,000 peacekeepers and dozens of peace envoys around the world. But how can the UN be effective if its supreme body, the Security Council, is paralysed due to seemingly unbridgeable difference between its most powerful, permanent members.
To some extent, UN agencies must shoulder blame for getting lulled by their own noble-sounding rhetoric and over-selling themselves to mobilise resources in a competitive world. The UN’s humanitarian system – including household names such as Unicef and the WFP – provides a salutary tale of constant endeavour falling short. That is because they have no influence over the causes behind accelerating humanitarian needs, even as they peddle inadequate solutions, however well-intentioned.
Meanwhile instances of corruption, fraud, misconduct and mismanagement are now being identified frequently among its agencies and programmes. This is a consequence of the UN’s outdated governance and accountability safeguards and a sense of impunity that comes out of historically granted privileges and immunities.
This undermines trust at a time when the world needs multilateralism critically. However, prospects for reform of the UN’s political arrangements, especially Security Council, are non-existent, and improvements in its oversight and control mechanisms will take a long time.
The UN has achieved much but is it now too big to succeed? While it remains indispensable in several areas, must it still do all that it is doing? After all, the world has evolved many additional capabilities over past decades. That should allow the UN to retire honourably out of certain endeavours.
It does not mean that the UN should retreat. On the contrary, it must advance to higher ground through developing the ideas and aspirations needed in our age of crisis and uncertainty. In the same way that it inspired us to repair the broken world of the 1940s. To do so, the friends of the UN must help to de-clutter its muddled mind and clear out its overflowing cupboard.